An ancient wolf pup, named Zhùr (means ‘wolf’ in the Hän language of the local Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in people), lived approximately 57,000 years ago and died in her den during a collapse of the sediments; during her short life, she ate aquatic resources, and is related to ancient Beringian and Siberian gray wolves (Canis lupus), according to new research led by Des Moines University.
Zhùr, which measures 41.7 cm (16.4 inches) from snout to base of tail and weighs 670 g, is the most complete wolf mummy known.
She was discovered in July 2016 in thawing permafrost in the Klondike goldfields, near Dawson City, Yukon, Canada.
Her mummified carcass was recovered along a small tributary of Last Chance Creek during hydraulic thawing that exposed the permafrost sediment in which it was preserved.
Zhùr’s preservation was exceptional, from the papillae on her lips to her skin and fur.
“We think she was in her den and died instantaneously by den collapse,” said lead author Dr. Julie Meachen, a researcher in the Department of Anatomy at Des Moines University.
“Our data showed that she didn’t starve and was about 7 weeks old when she died, so we feel a bit better knowing the poor little girl didn’t suffer for too long.”
By studying stable isotopes from Zhùr’s hair and tooth samples, Dr. Meachen and colleagues were able to determine that her mother had a diet heavy in aquatic resources.
That probably meant seasonal consumption of fish from the Klondike River, which still has a modern-day spawning population of Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha).
“Normally when you think of wolves in the Ice Age, you think of them eating bison or musk oxen or other large animals on land,” Dr. Meachen said.
“One thing that surprised us was that she was eating aquatic resources, particularly salmon.”
Through DNA testing of Zhùr and 29 other ancient and present-day wolves, the scientists were also able to connect her genetics to ancient Beringian and Siberian gray wolves, as well as modern gray wolves.
That includes individuals from both Eurasia and North America, highlighting the connections maintained between those continents as animals moved across the Bering Land Bridge.
“We’ve been asked why she was the only wolf found in the den, and what happened to her mom or siblings,” Dr. Meachen said.
“It could be that she was an only pup. Or the other wolves weren’t in the den during the collapse. Unfortunately, we’ll never know.”
“I feel a sense of privilege and gratitude for being able to work on a piece like this,” said co-author Dr. Matthew Wooller, director of the Alaska Stable Isotope Facility at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“A silver lining of climate change is that we may see more of them.”
The team’s paper was published in the journal Current Biology.
Julie Meachen et al. 2020. A mummified Pleistocene gray wolf pup. Current Biology 30 (24): 1467-R1468; doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2020.11.011